Op-eds

Is democracy damaging Israel?

  • Steven Gruzd
Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
by STEVEN GRUZD | Mar 12, 2020

Israel, which promotes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, has now held three legislative elections since April. It’s not inconceivable that it could face a fourth poll if a coalition can’t be cobbled together. How can all this democracy be good for the country as it sits without a mandated government yet again?

Like South Africa, Israel’s parliament – the Knesset – is elected through a proportional representation party list system. Unlike South Africa, where the African National Congress has received more than 50% of the votes in every election since 1994, in Israel, no single party has ever received close to the 61 seats needed to rule on its own. This has necessitated coalitions since 1948 – and all the horse-trading that goes with it.

How did Israel get here? Early elections were held in April 2019 after Avigdor Lieberman took his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) party out of the government. In that election, both Likud and the new Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) party led by Benny Gantz won 35 Knesset seats each. President Reuven Rivlin then asked Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government. He was unable to do so, mainly because Lieberman played kingmaker but refused to crown the king. He wouldn’t back down on demands that ultra-Orthodox Jews should do military service.

The Knesset then voted for new elections in September 2019, cynically to avoid Rivlin having to appoint Gantz as prime-minister designate. This was the first time in Israel’s history that no coalition could be crafted, and the first time the Knesset voted to dissolve itself before a government had been formed.

In the September do-over vote, Kachol Lavan edged Likud by 33 seats to 32. This was against the background of mounting legal problems facing Netanyahu. Kachol Lavan said it was open to a national unity government with Likud as long as it didn’t include Netanyahu. In the end, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz was able to form a government. The Knesset, incredibly, dissolved itself once again, setting a third round of elections for 2 March 2020.

In this third election, Likud surged to 36 seats to Kachol Lavan’s 33, but Netanyahu is still a few MKs (Members of the Knesset) short of forming a coalition.

Several Israeli commentators have said this political impasse is seriously undermining the public’s trust in a political system that was already highly polarised. Noa Landau in Ha’aretz wrote before the third elections were set, “Another round of elections, in addition to its dismal effect on the already deficit-heavy state coffers, would be a fatal blow to the public’s faith in the entire system. Even worse, based on the way the present round unfolded, another round of voting would likely mean an escalation in the tricks, lies, incitement, and election-law violations – mostly on the part of the person who is, more than anyone else, supposed to defend law and order: the prime minister. As the tension rises, increasingly desperate politicians have been pushing down the level of discourse and dividing Israel society.”

Ariela Ringel Hoffman wrote in ynetnews, “After three nasty and excruciating election campaigns, Israeli politics finds itself back in square one with an endless list of parties, all imposing tit-for-tat embargoes on each other, and if our lawmakers decide to stick to their guns, Israeli voters will find themselves going to the polls for another round that will, ultimately, lead us to the same result.” She urged voters to boycott a fourth poll – if it happens.

So, once again, Israel sits without a government in its very dangerous neighbourhood. Unwillingness to compromise, and Netanyahu’s criminal indictment dominate the landscape. Will he be in court during the day and run the country at night? Will Israel face yet another expensive, bitter, and indecisive election? How long can this continue? Is it time to review the electoral system?

Hopefully Israel’s politicians will be able to put the country before their parties or their personal avarice, interests, and egos. Otherwise, it’s back to the ballot box again in a few months’ time. This can only play into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

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